I never planned on being a teacher. Some people love kids, in all honesty I was never a big fan of children, however I was a big advocate for social justice and having experienced my own struggles in childhood I knew that schools have the power to transform lives. So when I saw a poster for Teach for America on campus I became a corps member in 2003. What was supposed to be a two year commitment, turned into a 10 year career.
After teaching in two urban schools in Atlanta, a virtual public school and an international school, I have learned a few things about education:
1. Kids are kids.
Despite their social, economic or racial backgrounds, if given the opportunity students can achieve and they want to learn. When I taught in the urban schools, telling someone that I worked at a certain school that had the highest rate of prison inmates from that one single area in the whole state of Georgia, certainly raised a few eyebrows. The kids were not bad. The kids had unfortunate situations and to be a child surrounded by crime, poverty and drugs… in all honesty, most adults can’t handle those pressures. In comparison, when I taught at an elite international school, people would think that the students were better behaved, smarter, etc. Again, kids are kids. Some of my students were not smarter than my students from the housing projects or better behaved.
The common thread I learned in both environments, parent involvement and engagement is essential in a child’s development. Parents need to spend time with their children. Whether a parent was serving time in jail, working two minimum wage jobs or CEO of a corporation; a lot of my students would not see either or both parents for extended periods and this affected them. Students share a lot with their teachers. Their hurt, disappointments, hopes and opinions. A student once told me, “You spend more time with me than my own parents.” This should not be the case.
Kids have incredible intuition. They know what is happening at home, despite what parents think they are shielding and they have their own opinions about it. Students also know if their teacher, administration or school cares about them. Schools can either be a sanctuary or purgatory. In education we should not exacerbate the problems.Which leads to the next point.
2. Not all teachers are created equal.
There are teachers that teach for the money. There are teachers that do it for the love of kids. There are teachers that teach because it was their plan B in life. This is the reality.
My first year teaching, I worked with teachers that just handed out worksheets to their students and spent their time at the computer working on their online PhDs so that they could get a higher pay scale before they retire. I also worked with teachers that came in early and stayed late, so that they can provide exciting lessons for their students.
I quit working for Atlanta Public Schools during my tenure year. When I rejected my contract, my principal said, “Are you sure you want to give up tenure?” I felt that I didn’t need tenure. I did my job well. My test scores proved it. I may anger a lot of union supporters, but I honestly feel that some teachers are inadequate in the classroom but are protected by tenure. I have heard teachers degrade their students. Not teach. Refuse to learn and grow to become better educators.
On the other hand, I met someone amazing teachers that inspired me. They were energized by their students and their growth. They talked more about what exciting things they want to do to reach their kids, not belittle them. We would talk about where to get free supplies, fun lessons and differentiating strategies.
What frustrated me about public schools, was that no matter what kind of teacher stood in front of the class, we were all paid the same based on our years and not our abilities. In business, there are promotions based on how well you work, achieve goals. Not in education. Also, just because someone has been teaching for fifteen years, does not make them a better teacher than a 1st year teacher. Just because someone went to school for education does not necessarily make them better than an alternative route certified teacher either.
Teachers get blamed for everything wrong in education. There has been a public media campaign against teachers and yes, there are some teachers that shouldn’t be teaching. However, this has also driven many awesome teachers out of schools. The ones that usually stay, are the ones that can’t get pushed out or refuse to leave.
3. No Child Left Behind.
This policy was about two years in effect when I became a teacher. I think that NCLB has caused a lot of high pressured situations which have not bettered schools at all. I believe in accountability, but you can not base student achievement on test scores alone.
For example, I had students that were several grade levels behind in reading when they entered fifth grade. To expect them to read at fifth grade level in 9 months is ridiculous. The measurement should be how much a student actually improved compared to where they started.
NCLB also created stressful work environments for teachers and administrators. Atlanta Public Schools had the most publicized test cheating scandal, but these situations are happening all over the nation.
Overall, I learned a lot from the school systems, leadership and of course, my students. My students inspired me to venture out of the classroom to create a greater impact in education. Continue to read more on my blog and follow me on Twitter @cindylouhowe.